What NASA Means to America’s Future

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The following is an excerpt from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.

Space Chronicles Book CoverI wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, “Why are we spending money up there when we have problems down here?” The first and simplest answer to that concern is that one day there’ll be a killer asteroid headed straight for us, which means not all your problems are Earth-based. At some point, you’ve also got to look up.

Under President Barack Obama’s space plan, NASA will be promoting commercial access to low Earth orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 makes NASA responsible for advancing the space frontier. And since low Earth orbit is no longer a space frontier, NASA must move to the next step. The current plan says we’re not going to the Moon anymore and recommends we go to Mars one day — I don’t know when.

I’m worried by this scenario. Without an actual plan to go somewhere beyond low Earth orbit, we’ve got nothing to shape the career dreams of young America. As best as I can judge, NASA is like a force of nature unto itself, capable of stimulating the formation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists — the STEM research fields. You nurture these people for the sake of society, and they become the ones who make tomorrow happen.

Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.  poses for a photograph beside the US flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. (AP Photo/NASA/Neil A. Armstrong)

Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. (AP Photo/NASA/Neil A. Armstrong)

The strength of economies in the 21st century will derive from the investments made in science and technology. This is something we’ve witnessed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: the nations that have embraced those investments are the nations that have led the world.

America is fading right now. Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore. NASA knows how to dream about tomorrow — if the funding can accommodate it, if the funding can empower it, if the funding can enable it. Sure, you need good teachers. But the teachers come and go, because kids go on to the next grade and then the grade after that. Teachers can help light a flame, but we need something to keep the flame fanned. And that’s the effect of NASA on who and what we are as a nation, what we have been as a nation and perhaps for a while took for granted as a nation. Today the most powerful particle accelerator in the world is hundreds of feet underground at the border between France and Switzerland. The world’s fastest train is made by Germans and is running in China. Meanwhile, here in America I see our infrastructure collapsing and no one dreaming about tomorrow.

Everybody thinks they can put a Band-Aid on this or that problem. Meanwhile, the agency with the most power to shape the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it must be doing — which is to make those dreams come true. And doing it for half a penny on a dollar.

How much would you pay for the universe?

Excerpted from Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Copyright © 2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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